Mike Yardley: Starry-eyed in East Kimberley

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Friday, 30 June 2017, 4:03p.m.

Amid the rugged, remote and expansive grandeur of East Kimberley, one of the glittering highlights of my AAT Kings guided journey through this stirring wilderness region was a visit to the Argyle Diamond Mine.  As one of the world’s largest suppliers of diamonds and famed for its dazzling range of natural coloured diamonds, it’s the rare pink diamonds which are the most prized – raking in 20 times the price of an equivalent white diamond.

The jewels also come in burgundy hues, blue, green, burnt oranges and yellows. Open pit mining operations have now ceased at Argyle, with all work now focused on the underground mine, which is expected to remain operating for another four years. The open pit mine is in the process of being fully rehabilitated and returned to its natural state. As our coach pulled in for an extensive look behind the scenes, expertly led by local indigenous guide, Ted Hall, the formidable level and layers of security is startling.

An arsenal of cameras watch your every move, linked live to the Australian Federal Police(AFP) bureau in Perth. There are sensors, automated gates and mandatory strip searches – even full cavity checks, if you’re spotted bending down to pick something off the ground. We didn’t dare. Guards watch the diamond sorters, while the AFP watches the guards.

After soaking up the splendour of this gazillion dollar mine, and enjoying a hearty buffet lunch in the staff mess, we ventured to Parry Lagoon ( also known as Marglu Billabong), the most tranquil of wetland settings, accentuated by the late afternoon sun gilding the setting . You’ll want to stick to the boardwalk because saltwater crocodiles lurk in the shallows. The billabong was a buzz with Australian birdlife, preening and posing, amid the idyllic stillness of their water-laden refuge.

I channelled Sir David Attenborough, determined to positively identify some of the Kimberley’s finest feathery specimens - and I wasn’t disappointed. No bird is more symbolic of the Kimberley than the Brolga, beautifully elegant birds with fire engine- red heads, who seemingly dance with each other purely for the fun of it. Australia’s only stork, the jaunty Jabiru, with its jet-black neck, was also easy to spot, as was the Australian Bustard. Don’t you love that name!

Across the glassy waters, egrets, herons and ibises dabbled about like Myanmar fishermen on stilts. But my greatest sighting was of the elusive and aptly named Snakebird. With only its head and neck rising from the water, this crafty bird submerges its body then suddenly strikes with its S-shaped neck. Small fish are speared with the sharp bill. Feeling quietly contended with my successful “twitching” mission, our group retired for the night to the splendid embrace of Emma Gorge Resort in the El Questro Wilderness Park. 

Nestled at the base of the rusty red rocky majesty of the Cockburn Ranges, this soul-rinsing glamping retreat is so symptomatic of the Kimberley, where the most fabulous and unexpected enterprises seemingly sprout out of nowhere. The safari-style tented cabins are thoughtfully strung around an oasis of palms, gums, boabs and native pandanus, while the resort’s dining facilities are centred around Emma’s Restaurant, located on shaded verandahs with a retractable roof.

Alternatively, you can dine closer to nature in the lush gardens.  It’s all rather divine. As was gazing at a sky full of stars and waking up to the cacophony of unfamiliar birdsong – a far cry from the usual dawn-breaking suspects in Australia. I’m looking at you squawking crows! We rendezvoused with the fabled Gibb River Road, a 660 km unsealed road, an extra-intrepid motoring badge of honour, that veers straight through the heart of the Kimberley, as we entered El Questro Wilderness Park. The panoramic views of the Cockburn Ranges, with a sandstone escarpment reaching over 600 metres in height, are absolutely captivating.

As is all the twisting, bending and buckling in the sedimentary rock strata. Like many other rock formations in East Kimberley, including the mesas that wondrously rise from the vast plains, there are uncanny similarities to Utah’s mighty geology. Although the wet season officially ends in April, in June there were still numerous deep fords to navigate, like the gorgeous Pentecost River and Moonshine Creek. My AAT Kings coach accomplished the crossings with surprising ease. Excitement suddenly erupted on the coach as we delighted in watching a jabiru chasing a kite.

El Questro offers a variety of accommodation options from caravan sites to the uber-exclusive Homestead, which comes with a princely nightly tariff of $2000. A Saudi Sheik’s family recently stayed here and the wife arrived with 100 suitcases. As you do. Entering the park, a couple of tame donkeys, nicknamed Kim & Kanye, were working the crowd. No prizes for guessing which one was Kim, given the dimensions of their respective behinds.

From El Questro we also took a charming cruise along the Chamberlain Gorge, complete with fruit platter and bubbles, gawping at the tropical vegetation and spinifex grasses clinging to the towering multi-hued cliff faces. Spinifex is a great stabiliser, I learned. A colossal boulder, now resting in the water, fell off the side of the cliff wall in 2008 during the Big Wet. From the Homestead, guests thought a bomb had exploded. The water was so crisp and clear, we eyeballed massive barramundi patrolling its depths.

We called into Wyndham, where a bunch of cheeky Aboriginal schoolboys, heralded our arrival by mooning us en-masse. My travel director, Delma, remarked that the local hospital was about to be “smoked”, in accordance with traditional practice, because the locals think it’s beset by bad spirits. A 20 metre long crocodile statue is Wyndham’s first official introduction, a rather menacing landmark, intricately constructed and containing of 5 kilometres of steel rods!

We admired Mr Croc en-route to the spectacular Five Rivers Lookout, which 330 metres above sea level. From the summit of the Daharwi Range, also known as Bastion Range, a seraphic backdrop to Wyndham, we drunk in the infinity view of five waterways flowing into the Cambridge Gulf, flanked by mudflats, as the sun set on a celestial day.  For more information on Western Australia, head to the official website. www.westernaustralia.com

AAT Kings’ Wonders of the Kimberley Tour runs between Broome and Darwin, between May and October. This fabulous ten day guided holiday delivers all the comforts as you prise open the plethora of treasures of the Kimberley region. www.aatkings.com

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The design elements are inspired by the WA landscape, with terracotta and metallic feature walls celebrating the mineral-rich soil. Savour the next generation dining concepts – from the Italian pizza bar with a pizza chef, wine bar, a ‘make your own’ juice station, a generous assortment of fresh hot and cold buffet offerings, while the Rockpool Mixology team have crafted the designer cocktails for the weekday happy hour, between 4 and 5pm. Now that’s flying in style. www.qantas.com

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